Saturday, December 29, 2012

Beauty Is Everywhere

Beauty is in the usual places:  in the sudden snowflakes, the stretching flowers, the leaf-laden trees, the unfurled sunset.
Beauty is where you least expect it:  in the rainbows in a puddle of leaking oil, the iridescent shimmer of a cockroach's wing, the green oxidation patterns on old copper pennies.
Beauty is where you choose to find it:  in the odd shape left by the dust bunnies, the lovely shades that bruise is turning, the intriguing shadows cast by peeling wallpaper.
And sometimes, my friend,
in the curve of a lip,
the curl of a finger,
the twinkle of an eye,
there is something
too beautiful
for words.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Matter of Degrees

If you have been living in the US over the last 10 or so days, it may have been a bit hard to keep your spirits up.  This statement is not to say that everyone's down.  Certainly, everyone isn't.  And some people have written beautiful, eloquent posts on how they are not really down, including my friend, Sarah Marple, in her blog, Water Water Everywhere....  And you should read it because it's lovely, beautifully written, and true for her.  It gives me hope. 

But I haven't bounced up so quickly, and that's neither right nor wrong as it isn't right or wrong for anyone to celebrate or not.  And I don't think I'm alone.  Our churches weren't more full, our children didn't bring home any more treats (in fact decidedly fewer), and there were fewer "Merry Christmas"es than usual from passersby.  And this is okay too.

But what changed for me was not the enormity of the sadness that Sandy Hook brought down on us but the pervasiveness of it, just as my sinking in September was not because of the death of one parent-friend, but the death of four and the knowledge of So.Many.Hurting.  And with it was the knowledge that so much could be done to prevent it.  There is so much peace and love to be had if we just reach for it. 

But we don't always reach.

This week, I've had trouble reaching.  It takes real effort, real conscious decision, sheer force of will.  I have not done nearly what I normally do for the holidays (although that trend started back the day after Thanksgiving).  And God has been exquisitely kind to me.

Now you see, you have to understand.  I do not always appreciate God's kindnesses.  I know that He's kind, and I thank Him many times a day for food, for life, for the bills, for my kids, for my husband, for socks, for the car, for my neighbors, etc.  I'm a big realizer that life is fleeting, and I would be an idiot if I didn't realize that God is my Provider.  And I am thankful for that.  I really am.

But I'm also a big fan of Nonviolent Communication, and I often find God to be a little low on the empathy side of things.  I mean, there's a lot of times that it's just not there--like when Moses is standing on the edge of the Red Sea and he sees the Egyptians riding out to meet him.  He maintains a cool front for the people--"stand still," you know, "the Lord will fight for you" (Exodus 14:13-14) and all--and he calls out to God.  I don't know about you, but I would call out to God too.  I would not be happy in that situation.  No, sir!  I would have some choice words to say.  But God does not empathize with Moses.  Not at all.  He does not say, "I know it looks tough now, but I've got a plan."  He doesn't say that.  What he says is, "Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on" (Exodus 14:15).  And, you know, God and I have had words about this situation because I feel He is being patently unfair to Moses.

And I have looked for His empathy.  It is there, but seldom.  He shows it to Elijah before giving him Elisha.  He shows it to Daniel when he stands confessing the sins of Israel.  There are moments when I feel it for Isaiah and Ezekiel (though He doesn't save Ezekiel's wife for reasons this human can't fathom and for which Ezekiel regularly has my prayers--is that strange to pray to God to comfort the person that you feel God has ordained the hurt for?  Or perhaps strange to pray for the comfort of a long dead prophet?  Aren't they supposed to be too holy for all of this emotion?  But I am irrational.  Let's leave it at that).

And so I don't really look for empathy from God.  I thought it wasn't His thing.  But this last six weeks, His caring, His kindness, His empathy has been amazing.  Little things--a card from my little one, a kind word from my big one (which is so rare--he just said, "You're pretty cool, dork," while he gave his brother a headlock this very afternoon, and that's about the height of his overt affection), a call from an aunt, a gift from another, a surprise kiss from the mother of a childhood friend--have come at just the right time.  They are just the right things.

Some days I wonder what difference I can make in such a humble situation and such a lowly state.  If I get discouraged so easily, what can I do?  But that discouragement need not stand in my way at all.  It is nothing compared to the unsurpassable greatness of the One I serve.  Even on this humble night 2000 years ago, I doubt that Mary was much in the mood for visitors.  I know I wasn't after delivering my children, and I didn't even have to think of cleaning up my room.  Where to begin for her?  What must the smell have been?  And then to have a mess of shepherds want to come in and hold the baby???  I don't know about you, but I had trouble handing my kids over to anyone else--husband, mother, father, doctor.  No way.  I'd been taking care of that kid for the last nine months, and I was going to hang onto him just a little longer, thank you very much.  But God had other plans, and Luke 2:19 tells us that "Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."  God can change our attitudes too.  He does have empathy after all, and it is astounding.

But He showed me something else too.  He showed me He also works small to do great things.   Sure, there are some really awesome big things He does big.  Just read this for 6 terrific examples.  But He uses small things too--loaves and fishes, tears, some water in some jugs.  It is not the grandness of our gesture toward peace nor the observed magnitude of its ripple in our community.  It is the eyes fixed on the One Who gives life and the feet walking, however slowly and with however tiny steps, in His direction.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"I see you. You matter. I care."

"Jon?"  demanded the voice on the other line.

"Hello?" I reiterated.

"Barb?" came the voice.  This time it was a guess, not a demand.

"Hi, Nora," I answered, recognizing my neighbor's voice.  "It's Beth, but everybody says I sound just like Mom."

"Oh.  Okay," she answered.  "I saw lights on, and I thought your parents were out of town.  I just wanted to be sure everything was okay."

"Thanks, Nora," I answered.  "You're right.  They are out of town.  My husband and I just stopped by to bring the mail into the house."

"Oh.  Okay.  Well, I'll just go then.  Have a good night."

"Good night, Nora," I said.  "And thanks again for checking."

Nora passed away a few years ago while I was out of the country, and even though I love her daughters who still live in the house next door to my childhood home, I miss her and what she stood for--the completely nosy neighbor who told us what we should and shouldn't do, who watched us from behind the curtains in her window, and who plied us with pizzelles every chance she got.  There was never any doubt where Nora stood, just as there was never any doubt equally that she loved you no matter how often you'd failed.  In many ways, she and a couple of our other neighbors taught me what neighbors should be.

Other neighbors, not so grown up, have taught me what neighbors can be.

"You don't belong here," said one.

"She told you to go," insisted another.  "I'm watching you.  Go."

These were my neighbors my freshman year of college and they were talking to a stalker I had, and whom I had reported but for whom there would be no investigation for another two-and-a-half years.  I never followed the investigation.  It was too close to home, too disturbing, and there was nothing that I, someone who had been suffering from post-concussive syndrome at the time of my distress, could legally do to help strengthen their case in court.

But these neighbors did not wait for the authorities to do something.  They did not pick up weapons.  And they did not think it was just my problem.  They saw this situation as our problem, and they saw the power of their own gaze, their own ability to say, "I see you."

Two years later, before I was aware of the new investigation into the stalker, my friends and I dealt with a felon roommate.  We were told, "Pretend you don't know anything.  You don't want to compromise the investigation."

I have never made a bigger mistake than following that advice.  My refusal to say, "I see you," allowed her to continue to dig herself in a bigger pit.  But worse than that, it said to her of me, "Your welfare does not matter enough to me to intervene.  I don't care what happens to you."  But I did care, and I do care, and I have never regretted any decision before or since as much as I regret that one.

Believe it or not, I started this post Wednesday morning, before Connecticut, before the bullies on Surfside Drive, before the endless Facebook discussions on gun control, mental illness, violence.  I started it in response to my own failings in this realm, my own recognition that for whatever reason last week, I was not able to respond in the way I wanted to the people around me.

I still struggle, and I don't claim to have all the solutions.  But from the time I first saw both bully and bullied cry--a rainy afternoon on a miserable February day in a second grade classroom in Plum, Pennsylvania--I decided to pay more attention to how to make this pain stop.

Over the years, I have discovered that there is no top-down answer to this problem, but there is a bottom-up strategy that, while immensely difficult, drastically reduces these issues of violence, loneliness, and discontent.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it's reflected in many major religions, psychology, and political philosophy.  It's not new at all--only difficult and something that must be implemented on an individual level.

Are you ready for it?  It's only three simple sentences that sum up almost everything we know about solving social problems from almost any angle.

  • "I see you."
  • "You matter."
  • "I care."  
If you want to read a little bit of the referenced (and by referenced, I mean names of the big thinkers only, but at least enough to give you a hint of where I am coming from theoretically), please read this post here.

I see you.  When faced with injustice, there is no reason to pretend we don't see.  We are not blind.  By pretending not to see, we give more power to the attacker.  But many attack because they either want attention or because they are trying to meet unfilled needs.  If I say, "I see you," before the situation comes when I am witnessing problematic behavior, I am building the necessary bridges and nets to say, "This is a cooperative place here.  This is a community to which we both belong."  I am establishing a new in-group.  I am recognizing a fellow human being.  I am building a foundation for peace just by making the most casual of conversations.  There is a chance to give that attention, to know that need, and to meet that need before the situation ever comes to violence.  And if it does come to violence, then my gaze has all the more power because I have seen them, I do know them, and I can do something.

You matter.  "You matter" is obviously harder, but it is still relatively simple.  It is a matter of listening.  The listening could be verbal.  It may be observational.  So much can be communicated to a child when you attempt to tie his or her shoe.  If he is older, he might be offended.  If he is younger, he may be grateful. Either way, in this time in which I often suspect the average bystander would rather watch my child run down in the road than shout "CAR!" in warning, the child will remember you, and, even if they were insulted, they will likely remember you as someone that thinks something of them, someone who sees them.  And we all long to be seen.  We all long to matter.

I care.  Nothing says more than this simple expression.  How do we say, "I care?"  We say it every time we remember what someone said the day before and follow up with a question the next day.  We say it when we remember the names of the kids at the bus stop.  We say it when we offer coffee, when we pick up mail, when we smile and say, "I missed you."  And we really say it when we continue to listen when the news is not good and when we are willing to be slightly put out to do something that makes a big difference.  It's surprising how very much a small sacrifice can mean to someone else.  You don't have to be right in what you do.  You may really mess up.  But so few people take the time to say or do anything at all that what we say and do makes a huge impact.

 And we don't need to do this kind of talking and acting just at home.  We need to do it everywhere.  I have seen it work.  It works in our places of employment, in our schools, and in our churches.  It sounds simple and overly optimistic.  But it works.  It is, in a nutshell, loving your neighbor as yourself.  It is doing justly and loving mercy.  It is tolerance and forbearance while still being connected.

So what is my point?

When it comes to building a community through personal action, the time to start is right now, before it looks like there is any problem.  And the point of saying "I care" is not to mean "I care that you are punished," but "I care that you flourish."  And the person to begin saying "I care" to is the person standing next to us, the one who looks like us, the one who doesn't look like us, the one who annoys us, and the one who blesses us.  The time to love our neighbor is right now, whether or not it looks like our neighbor needs it because our neighbor needs it.

And here is the secret:  we need it just as much as our neighbor does.

Brief background to "I see you. You matter. I care."

Note:  This post is meant to accompany "I see you.  You matter.  I care."

What follows is just a very quick jaunt through my readings and research in these areas.  It is not exhaustive because I am writing this portion in response to questions that this is all in my head.  It is not well referenced because my goal is not publication, it is insight for practical living.

I see you.

What major religion doesn't start with the premise?  God knows you/You belong to God (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism). You are a part of the universe (Buddhism). 

What philosophy of government doesn't operate under this principle?  You see the point of watching in John Locke, Niccolo Macchiavelli, and incredibly in Foucault.  Seeing is part of governing.  Think of our court systems.  The word of witnesses is the means by which we decide guilt or innocence.

Think psychology and the role of voyeurism.  Or simply think modeling.

Why is it such a big deal to parents that a child is born blind?  Because so much of our thoughts and society function around the ability to see.  Seeing is equated with knowing.  "I see," we say when we understand.

It's also equated with liking and valuing, which every child knows the instant she begins badgering her mother, "Look at me!  Look at me!  See what I can do!"

But looking isn't always easy.  It requires facing that which we would often like to deny.  Seeing takes courage, the first tenet in BrenĂ© Brown's description of wholehearted living. It takes being willing to take our eyes off ourselves and turn them outward to the world (not the television, computer screen, or smart phone) around us.

You matter.

Once again, the importance of the individual in the grand scheme of all things underlies most major religions.  We are a piece of the atman (Hinduism).  We are a part of the universe (Buddhism).  We are a chosen people (Judaism).  We are sought after (Christianity).  It matters to us that we matter.

 In governing as well, the individual matters by virtue of the rules he breaks.  Once again, Niccolo Macchiavelli comes to mind, as does Foucault.  Locke and Rousseau both impose limits to liberty, and Marx, who generally rules out the individual and speaks of class as one, recognizes that the breaking of reciprocity/fairness (so called by Jonathan Haidt in his works on morals) underlies the rising of the masses.  Dan Ariely underscores this importance as he studies why we break rules and how we deal with rule breakers.  Both Ariely and Haidt's studies revealed that most people will follow the rules when rule breakers are punished.  The subjects enjoyed watching them punished and, in one of Haidt's studies, contributed to a fund for punishing them.  But the long and the short of it is the premise that individuals (and their actions) matter.

In psychology, mattering is also a big deal.  Erickson's stages of psycho-social development hinge almost exclusively on concepts of mattering in the universe:  trust (do I matter to someone?), autonomy (do I matter enough to make a difference in my own life?), initiative (do I matter enough to make a difference outside myself?), industry (do I matter enough to do something of importance?), identity (who I am matters), intimacy (I matter to someone else), generativity (I matter to this new generation), ego integrity (I have mattered, and I'm ready to move on).  The failures in all of these stages are all failures to matter.

In terms of Brown's fundamentals of wholehearted living, we could call mattering "connection."  We are connected to one another.  In the words of John Donne, "No man is an island,/Entire of itself.../Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls./It tolls for thee" ("No Man Is an Island," 1624).

I care.

This one is the hard one, but it is just as crucial.  How do we choose to care?  Do we care in the sense that we will bully, punish, and cast out?  Do we care in the sense that we forgive?  Do we forego all consequences?

Brown's hierarchy would call this "compassion," and I will deal later with how I see compassion working.  And I say right now that I am not the poster child for compassion.  It might be hard to find someone with less innate sense of social cues than I have.

Looking through the religions, caring shows perhaps the biggest variation.  Hinduism shows both extremes:  Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.  Buddhism has varying forms of non-aggression, sometimes bordering on a refusal to participate in the world to which they claim we all belong.  Islam and Judaism (how odd to put them in the same sentence) both adhere to strict rules with severe penalties.  Christianity, as it is practiced, ranges from extreme reliance on the letter of the law and an unforgiving God to the point in which some churches take the forgiveness of sin to the extreme of permissiveness of sin.  How they care is shown in acceptance or rejection and punishment.

The radical nature of religion in theory, apart from religion in general practice, is that it espouses mercy for the weak and lifts up the humble, recognizing the sacredness of life in the least of these.  And that particular belief is found across religions.

In looking at political philosophy, perhaps Macchiavelli makes the most of shows of caring.  Macchiavelli is never one to suggest that the prince should actually care about his subjects, but he does repeatedly show that measures extended to the prince's subjects which demonstrate care and trust will gain the prince valuable allies.  (And to all the guns-rights advocates out there, who may think I pick and choose what I believe, I freely admit that Macchiavelli counseled the prince to arm his subjects because, Macchiavelli believed, it would make the subjects (1) feel the prince cared for them and wanted them to feel secure; (2) feel the prince trusted them and did not fear ill will from them; and (3) prone to fight on the side of the prince should the need arise.)  Locke and Foucault's versions of care were largely hands off unless punishing.  Foucault, I should mention, did not so much propose how a government ought to operate so much as describe how many governments do operate, thus his focus on penal issues and systems may not actually reflect his feelings about ideal forms of government.  Marx focused on providing for life across the board.  Rousseau believed a righteous government would share and cooperate (of course, Rousseau had another thing coming).

In the Western political arena, clearly, care = punishment.

In psychology (and later in educational psychology), care takes on a far different face.  Care is not about separation but attachment.  It is not about penalty but pleasure (Foucault spends three books examining how the seeking of pleasure and the regulations of society but heads).  It is not about pruning but about growth.  It is about nurturing, supporting, uplifting, and healing those within the society.  Theoretically, although not in our psychological practice, the aim is to nurture the individual or group before they come to crisis, so that in crisis they will survive.

Caring in psychology is founded on the ability to empathize.  Empathy with others only happens when one empathizes with one's self and vice versa.  You cannot have one without the other.  I'm not sure where the original thought came from, but several psychologists mention this truth over and over:  Real, Brown, Pipher, Rosenberg, Burns, etc.

In the end, I would argue that this psychological truth is the foundation of Matthew 6:12 "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" and Matthew 7:1-2 "Judge not, that ye be not judged.For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."  It is not that we ought to forgive or ought not to judge.  It is that judgment and forgiveness are reciprocal.  As we do, it shall be done to us.

Caring and empathy in psychology looks a lot like loving your neighbor.  It looks a lot less like hell.  That time may be coming, yes, but if we believe Jude 1:9 "Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee" that not even Michael the Archangel sought fit to judge in God's stead, what role ought those of us who claim to be Christians take in judging our neighbor?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Imperfect Gifts Sometimes Fit Perfectly

We are having a crisis of faith at our house.

Last Sunday, my big one saw a broken bird egg outside.  The vanilla shell, the size of a broken thimble, captured his imagination.

"Mommy, I think it might be a baby dragon.  Wouldn't it be awesome if it were a dragon?  Do you think I could keep it as a pet?"

"It's probably a sparrow or little bird egg, sweetie.  Remember the Wild Kratts?  Reptile eggs are soft and leathery.  This egg shell is hard."

"I'm going to pray, Mom.  I'm going to pray for dragons to be real."

And so he did.  Repeatedly.

We kept the blinds open Sunday night so that we could see the dragon if he came before dawn.

"How are you going to see him?" I asked.  "It's dark out."

"Dragons have fire, Mom," the big one answered.  "Besides, the street lights are on."

At a quarter after six Monday morning, the big one rushed down the steps, swung open the front door, and thrust his head out into the chilly morning air.  As snowflakes floated past his ears, he couldn't contain his disappointment.  Leaving the door wide open, he flew across the room and flung himself on the couch.

"There are no dragons!  God didn't hear me!"

We had real tears. 

It was a long week.  By Wednesday.

I told my friend about it.  After a laughing a little, she confided. "I remember my best friend and I praying forever that we would be magic."

I smiled.  I had prayed for blue eyes.  "God, if you love me, please, please, please, please let me wake up with blue eyes."  But God knew the plans He had for me, and my eyes stayed a hazely brown.  After all the time I've spent in Korea, I'm now thankful for my brown hair and hazel eyes.  I stick out enough.  I don't need any more help in that department.

Similarly, there are times God gives me things I didn't even ask for, didn't even want, like concussions, felon roommates, a second language, eczema, etc.

And from many of those experiences, I have emerged with great beauty and new understanding.  Did I really need to live in another culture and learn another language to recognize that manners and morals are completely different entities that are often confused in the minds of most people?  Why, yes.  Yes, I did.  I did not enjoy the lesson one bit.  Not when I was being judged.  Not when I was judging.  Has it made my life richer having learned it?  Why, YES!  A much bigger YES!  And I wouldn't take back that lesson.

And in that sense, God has given me an earthly example of Himself: My beloved husband.

My husband loves to buy me things.  Often he shops at Sam's Club, so I get a year's supply at once.  He hardly ever buys what I would have asked for.  In fact, sometimes asking for something is the surest way not to get it.  Many times, what he buys is not even what I like.

Take the year before my first child was born.  We went out of town for Valentine's Day.  Of course, it wasn't a Valentine's Day trip, per se; we traveled because I was speaking at a conference.  I booked a reservation at a hotel with a gym because my husband loves to exercise.  I, however, do not love to exercise.  I had packed intending that he could go to the gym while I presented.

My husband had different ideas.

That night, he bought me tennis shoes, dark blue with yellow trim and white laces.  I winced when I saw them.

"We can work out together."  He smiled so innocently and with such enthusiasm, I swallowed all the things I was going to say.

It was one of the best evenings we have ever had.

Sometimes, my husband, like God, knows what I need far better than I do.

Sometimes imperfect gifts fit perfectly.